Normandy Run

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Normandy Run

Post  Radar on Sun Oct 09 2011, 01:03

Day One: Submarines, French pot noodles and fast ferries

On the 6th June 1944 one of the biggest events in modern history took place, the seaborne invasion of Europe by the forces of the Allies...D-Day. I set out on a chilly Friday morning riding my FZ1S in company with a couple of my like minded mates and then head over to France to check the Normandy area and in particular the invasion beaches, museums and memorials.

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Meeting up at Warwick Services

The run down to Portsmouth passed without incident and better still the sun was out and weather seemed to be set fair. Before we caught our Ferry we had time to check out the interesting Submarine museum in Gosport. Here one of the last subs built during World War 2, HMS Alliance, is preserved. The old girl is in need of a major tidy up externally, but is pristine inside. We joined the guided tour given by a veteran of service on one of these subs. Inside the conditions were incredibly cramped and one can only respect the lads who served in these confines, often under attack or remaining submerged for days or even weeks at a stretch. Crew members did not even get their own bunk, having to share, ‘hot-bunk’ style, one on shift, one off. The veteran, a delightful chap called Terry who still got about on a Honda 250 he told us, imparted the life of a submariner articulately and I came away from the tour with my respect for the crews of these vessels heightened. The museum is very interesting and we even got to survey Portsmouth harbour through the preserved periscope of HMS Conqueror...the sub that took out the Argentinean Cruiser Belgrano so controversially in the 1982 Falklands War.

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HMS Alliance, the exterior is soon to receive a lottery funded £3,000,000 revamp

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Inside she is immaculate as witnessed by the control room set up

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It is pretty cramped in their as Terry gives a guided tour

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The periscope from HMS Conqueror

From there we fought our way through dense traffic from Gosport to Portsmouth keen not to miss our ferry only to discover once we got there it had delayed by an hour. So we chilled on the dockside and enjoyed an impromptu classic car show as a stream of beautiful 1950’s XK Jaguars and Alfa Romeos boarded the ferry bound for Bilbao.

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The standard 'waiting for the ferry' shot

Finally aboard and having watched nervously as the bikes were ratchet strapped down to the vehicle deck, we made our way up to the louge and relaxed with beer, watching a spectacular sunset as our ferry the high speed 'Normandee' headed across the channel at up to 40 knots. Today the weather was perfect and the sea not far off a flat calm, but your mind could help wander back towards that fateful evening in 1944 as thousands of young men were crammed into Landing Craft on much rougher seas, ready for their date with destiny...

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Making up to 40knots the wake was impressive

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Stuuning sunset

The French are internationally renowned for their fine cuisine and so we were looking forward to having something to eat on the boat, before the ride in the darkness to our guesthouse. We were to be in for a bit of a disappointment, the best thing on offer was the French version of a pot noodle...with two notable differences...it tasted even worse and cost a cool £5!! Thank God I had asked the guest house to lay on buffet for us as a backup.

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The pot noodles were crap, but the beer was much better...the all important first pint!

We docked in Cherbourg and as it was dark and we were all tired we headed down the rather ordinary N13 heading for Carentan, itself the scene of a famous battle between the US Airborne and German forces in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Here we turned on to the arrow straight D971 and made for the tiny village of Raids, our base for the next two days. We rolled onto the gravel drive to be greeted by the spectacular sight of Le Clos Castel; it looked good on the web-site, but in the flesh it was amazing. Hazel, the ex-pat land-lady had laid on a cracking spread of food. After been shown to our rooms, all of which were spacious, mine even boasted two balconies

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Our impressive base for our adventures, Le Clos Castel

Having dumped off our kit we headed down to the dining room and were soon tucking in to the buffet and having a few cold beers while planning out the riding for tomorrow. So all in all it was a perfect day with 230 trouble free miles covered.

Day Two: Early starts, gorgeous guides and history at every turn

We headed for the British sector and our first port of call was Ranville near Ouistreham and the scene of the very first assault in the small hours of D-Day on a bridge across the Canal de Caen. Now better known as Pegasus Bridge in honour of the code-name of the assault when three Horsa glider loads of troops made the attack, the closest landing only 50 metres from the bridge in the dead of night! The museum itself is packed with interesting artefacts and we guided through the story and around the museum by a beautiful guide who spoke knowledgably and movingly of the assault, how it fitted into the bigger picture of the invasion and how much liberation meant to the locals.
The pride of place in the museum goes to the actual bridge itself and still bearing some bullet holes from the fighting. It was moved from its'original site to the museum grounds a few years before, when a newer bigger bridge was needed for the town. Close second is an accurate replica of the 'Hora' assault glider used on the night, a huge wooden aircraft, the originals built by furniture manufacturers! The statistic that impressed me was how little it weighed...only 3 tonnes un-laden, only a little more than a new LR Discovery!

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The bikes outside The Pegasus Memorial museum

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The original Pegasus bridge now preserved in the grounds of the museum

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The battle damage from the fateful night is still clearly in evidence

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Faithful, full size replica of the Airspeed Horsa glider used on the night of the assault

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An American hlaf-track, one of several vehicles and peices of artillary displayed in the grounds

We enjoyed lunch at a little cafe next to the new bridge, this was the very first building to be liberated and a little 4 year old girl lived there on that fateful night. Now nearly seventy years on the that same girl still lives there, a little older now but her piercing blue eyes were still bright and you could sense the history they had witnessed. She runs the cafe and she served us our lunch as we sat outside the cafe in brilliant sunshine. Already this trip was exceeding all expectations, two good mates for company, a fast reliable bike under me, the sun on my back and a beautiful area steeped in history to explore. Truly it doesn’t get much better than this.

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Tucking into some rather better French food at the historic Pegasus Cafe Grondee

From here for a few miles wound our way down tight country lanes through quiet, typically French villages. Around every turn you half expected to come across a Jeep heading a column of Sherman tanks or a squad of Wehrmacht soldiers desperately trying to push the invaders back into the sea. In contrast to my trips into Europe on bikes in the past, blasting about was not the priority, but just been on a bike puts you in touch with your environment in way a car just does not match.
We were making our way to Arromanches, where Gold beach is located. Here also can be seen the remains of the incredible ‘Mulberry’ harbour, which was fabricated in Glasgow and towed over to provide the Allies with a port without having to go through the fierce fight necessary to take one by force. This had been tried in 1942 when a Canadian force took a real beating when trying to take the port of Dieppe. There is a museum next to the beach that contains some impressive models of how the harbour looked and operated at the time, but the real reason to come here is to go onto the now peaceful beach and try to picture the events of the big day. Again the warm sunshine gave the whole experience a slightly surreal feel, this only been sharpened as the large concrete remains of the harbour still litter the beach and the coast line.

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The D-Day museum at Arromanches[b]

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[b]The wonderfully detailed models of the Mulberry harbour, the photo really doesn't do it justice


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Remnants of the Mulberry harbour still litter the beach, slowly rotting into the sands

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Even more are still littering the horizon, a lingering reminder

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Gold beach is now slowly returning to the beautiful place it once was again, a place to be enjoyed, not fought over

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Arromanches today is idylic

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But this Sherman tank positioned above the town almost seems to be staying on guard...just in case...

The town itself is quite charming so we enjoyed a cooling beer at another open air bar before getting back in the bikes to clock up a few more miles.

We made our way to the coastal battery at Longues-ser Mer, once part of the mighty line of coastal defences constructed by the Germans from 1941 onwards to defend against invasion. On the way we had the only real hitch of the day when two of us rode into a pot-hole so big I was half expecting to find troops still in there seeking cover! Remarkably no damage was done to either bike, but it did shake me a bit.

The battery itself still looks remarkably complete, there are even a couple of guns still in place slowly rusting into oblivion. The early evening light added to the atmosphere

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Amazingly intact gun emplacement

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Thankfully this gun has fired its last shell

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The scars of battle remain to this day

We rounded off a packed an interesting day back in Carentan in a friendly restaurant Les Pontes D’ouve, enjoying an excellent meal and musing over the sights and sounds of a fantastic day.

Two days in and I can't wait for the next day when we be checking out the American sector centred around Utah and the infamous Omaha beaches

Day 3: Sun on our backs, respect on our minds

Today it was time to check out the so-called ‘American-sector’ that was a relatively short hop from Raids. On the way we rode past ‘Dead-Mans Corner’ where the US Airborne was involved in some fierce fighting and then to the charming village of St Marie Du Mont. From several kilometres out the village church tower dominates the surrounding countryside, and once we parked up in the market square it was no surprise to discover that the fighting around the church had been ferocious on the first night of the invasion, and it had changed hands several times. If you have watched the mini TV series ‘Band of Brothers’ you will be familiar with the now legendary Easy Company, it was in this very village that they were fighting during the early phase of the invasion. There is a museum here and it contains a load of exhibits crammed into a relatively small area, I found the German equipment of particular interest as in general these are much rarer.

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The tower of the church at StMarie DuMont dominates its' surroundings

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The bikes in the square of StMarie DuMont

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Easy company in pretty much the same spot

I took over the Fire Blade from here for the final few kilometres up to the coast. What an impressive bike, the suspension is firm and well damped, the steering sharp and ultra responsive and the engine is grunty and responsive, the after market pipe lending it a purposeful bark.

We rolled into the car park of the recently refurbished and re-opened Utah Beach Museum. It is a large impressive place and on a much larger scale to anything else we had visited up to now. Greeted by another rather lovely receptionist we managed to blag a free personal guided tour, not sadly from the lovely receptionist but a male maths graduate. Oh well, he gave us some useful insights whilst constantly apologising for his excellent English. Among the things to catch my eye was a small remote control tank that the Germans used to attack full sized Sherman tanks.

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The Imposing Utah Beach Museum

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Water Buffalo

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All the exhibits at Utah Beach Museum are immaculately presented

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A typical landing craft actually used on D-Day

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The immpecably restored Martin B-26 Marauder

The centrepiece of the museum is a Martin B26 bomber that has been immaculately restored and is painted in the colours of a pilot who carried one of the last air raids just before the US troops poured ashore. Many years later his sons visited the museum and realising the story told was about their father who had tragically been killed in a road accident only a couple of years after the war had ended. They promptly donated $2,000,000 which funded the purchase of the B26 and the equally impressive building in which it is housed.

Outside the surrounding dunes also contained some impressive and moving memorials. We made our way onto the beach bathed in blazing sunshine, and rather than been hit by the emotion of being in such a historic spot we treated to the sight of stunningly beautiful women in a tiny red bikini sun bathing. In a way this kind of showed that the beach is slowly returning to what it should be…a beautiful place to enjoy in freedom, exactly what those lads who charged on to these same sands were fighting for all those years ago.

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Utah beach, now so peaceful

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Utah beach now has sights more typically found on beaches

The weather continued to massively exceed expectations as we sat outside to enjoy lunch and a cold bear at the Roosevelt Café just behind the dunes. Next up on our whirlwind tour was a site recommended by the 17 year old son of our landlady who is already into the history of Normandy in a big way, the Batterie D’Azeville a largely complete example of the series of defences built by the Germans. Again we were greeted with a stunning receptionist (what is it with French museums???) in the visitor centre that has been converted from on of the four main gun emplacements. We explored the tunnels and the ammunition rooms and you really could feel the history of the place strongly. I could hear my mates footsteps echoing like marching soldier through the tight and confined underground tunnels.
One of the four emplacements had taken a hit from a 15” shell from USS Nevada some 22km offshore. It had entered through the slit for the gun, failed to exploded but sliced and ricocheted its way through the emplacement and smashed its’ way out the back of the building. 15 of the gun crew were killed instantly in the room where we stood. I found it disconcerting to be stood there now as I thought of a human life been turned as quickly as somebody turning off a light…

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The rear of one of the four emplacements

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The hole peirced by the shell from the US battleship some 20km off shore. Without even explodiing it killed 15 men instantly in this run. Sobering thought

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Access to the gun turrets is still possible and in remarkable condition

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Checking out the emplacements

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Most of the network of tunnels still survive

Just around the coast we also stopped briefly at a sister Batterie De Cribecq. Here an emplacement had taken a direct hit for a shell that had exploded and the damage was massive. It must have been like living through hell on earth for the crews of these guns as the huge guns of battleships and cruisers from the sea, and fleets of heavy bombers from the skies constantly bombarded them for hours on end. The defences that had taken years to complete only resisted the Allies for a matter of days at best in some cases for a matter of hours. However they inflicted a heavy toll on the invaders in places, nowhere more so than on the infamous Omaha beach at Vierville ser Mer and Mon les Moules. This was the last place we visited and perhaps the most moving. Here literally thousands of young Americans had been killed or wounded as they desperately tried to land on wide open beaches overlooked by steep slopes and sheer cliffs. The thought of trying to fight your way ashore, soaking wet, laden with kit and under a hail of fire is a sobering one. The beach now is breathtakingly beautiful and this somehow just to the poignancy of the moment. I walked along the beach feeling a little humble and lucky to be able to enjoy a freedom these young men had given so much to ensure.
We spotted a bar and restaurant overlooking the beach and ate here as the sun set not just on the evening but a fantastic two days. I know I have not written much about the bikes, or the roads or how fast or slow we went. This was a biking trip where this was not really important, but in fact trivial when considered in the context of the history all around us and the debt we all owe to the British, American and Canadian troops (amongst many others) who fought for us all on these beaches and fields.

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Imagine having to scale these cliffs, soaking wet weighed down with kit and facing withering incoming fire

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Hard to grasp the gravity of what happened here on Omaha beach so tranquil is it now

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Plenty of evidence of the ferocius defences still remain

The next morning we up early and headed home on the slower Ferry from Ouistreham. The sun was still blazing and the channel was deep blue. As we came into port at Portsmouth we passed HMS Victory and inwardly I saluted all the brave lads who fought. Now those who survive are old men, but we should never forget what they did for us. These men are real heroes, factory workers and bank clerks turned soldier, pilot or sailor.

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Bikes back on the ferry for the journey home

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Bye bye Normandy

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HMS Victory at Portsmouth

So ends a brilliant, memorable biking trip that seemed much longer than just a few days. If you ever get the chance to do this run take it, you wont regret it.


Last edited by Radar on Sun Oct 09 2011, 01:10; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : Typos)
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Re: Normandy Run

Post  weasley on Sun Oct 09 2011, 08:53

Nice report!

I was in southern Normandy this year and we visited the scene of the end of the Battle of Normandy, the so-called Falaise Pocket and the heroic fight put up by the allied forces, especially the Polish, at Mont Ormel. Really brings it alive and even more so when I realise I know someone who was there.
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Re: Normandy Run

Post  robertcains on Sun Oct 09 2011, 10:27

Great write up Tony, glad you enjoyed it
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